An hour-long Christmas special on Channel 5 this week has a distinctly local flavor. Called "Matthew's Magical Christmas," the show was produced in the local WTTG studio, using a local writer and producer, local stage people and actors -- including five from Northern Virginia -- and even a local dog.
The show has sold to Metromedia stations all over the country and station officials expect it to become a local Christmas staple in the years ahead. It aired for the first time last Monday and will be shown again Sunday.
"We have done nothing this massive in a long time," said the show's executive producer, Sandy Pastoor, who conceived the idea of the special while driving down Massachusetts Avenue. "I thought, 'I've just got to think of a way to get into those embassies,' " she said.
As a door-opener, she tried for a show depicting embassy personnel celebrating Christmas according to their own customs. Enter reality: "I found that most of them either go home for Christmas," she said, "or go to Florida, or celebrate here the same way we do." So as an alternative, the station decided to film the special "in our own studios, using Santa as our medium -- he's an international spirit, right?" Pastoor said.
For actors, the studio turned to various community and acting organizations, like The Children's Theatre of Arlington. The groups sent nearly 100 of their most talented children to audition for the 15 parts, a process Pastoor described as "the hardest part of doing the show: the kids were so good and got so turned on by the idea."
Easiest to pick, she said, was the boy who plays Matthew, Jerry Mayer of Arlington. The 13-year-old president of the student body at Swanson Intermediate School, Mayer "has a face any mother would love," Pastoor said, "but you could just kill him -- he looks like a real imp."
And acts like one, from all reports -- including his own. "In between shooting, we'd go around and play little tricks on people," Mayer said with a grin. "We'd go onto the 'Panorama' set and put blizzards all over the weather chart, stuff like that."
"On the first day," said 8-year-old Lori Zimmerman of Springfield, who plays a double role in the cast, "Jerry walked up to me and said, 'Hi, I'm your brother.' Just like that: 'Hi, I'm your brother.' " Then, she reported with glee, they rehearsed her favorite scene: "I got to hit him with a pillow. That was the best part of the whole show for me."
Others got off on a friendlier footing with the young man. "I started to chat with Jerry Mayer, figuring he was a nice young 13-year-old kid," said Doug Tillett, a voice actor from Baltimore who plays Santa in the show. "Well, he turned out to be a 45-year-old midget. He came right up to me and told me his SAT scores were better than most students at Georgetown University. It had what you might call an inhibiting effect on his fellow actors."
Other Northern Virginia youngsters in the show are Anoushka Frank of Vienna, Lisa Penning of Springfield and Kyle Page of Arlington.
In the show, Santa's role is to explain the true meaning of Christmas to an incredulous Matthew, a Scrooge character who doesn't believe in Christmas, by showing him Christmas customs from around the world. "We have the tree from Germany and mistletoe from Italy," said Pastoor. "Duane Bowers' puppets come in from Germany and France. The French one just wants to kiss everyone under the mistletoe."
The show also includes candles from Ireland, a fable from Wales about the pony turned out from the stable by Mary and Joseph, a ballet sequence and many other songs and dances.
Mayer admits that he's "not much of a dancer," but says it wasn't the musical aspects of the show that bothered him -- it was the microphone. "They had mike problems with me, and they finally ended up using this long one that they stuck down my pants. It was cold and I couldn't sit down."
For Zimmerman, the problems were those inherent with doing television: "We never did anything right the first time. We had to do every scene over and over and over and over again. Ooooh, it was tiring."
Mayer agreed. "I had one scene where I had to eat a cookie, over and over. The stage crew would mess up, or Santa would mess up; one time I messed up. I didn't like the cookie to begin with and at the end, boy, was I stuffed!"
But both childen said they enjoyed the experience. "I would have taken any little part to be on this show," said Mayer, "and I learned a lot about TV."
Both children want to continue acting, mostly for the money ("I've always dreamed of owning a big ranch," said Zimmerman) and the exposure ("You know that 20 percent of the people in your community will see you," she said). But Mayer is more hard-nosed about it: "I've seen a lot of child actors around, and many of them are more talented than I am. I would rather be an actor or a writer, but I'm not banking on it."
The children are banking the money they got for this performance, although Mayer said he has already "figured out how many quarters it makes; I'm a video game freak." Zimmerman said she plans to spend some of hers on Olivia Newton-John albums.
Mayer sees a longer-term investment in the production. "They say they plan to show this every year at Christmas on Channel 5, so I'll be able to show it to my friends when I'm in college. It's like baby pictures."
"Matthew's Magical Christmas," to be aired on WTTG (Channel 5) Sunday at 8 p.m.